Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, February 25, 2011

Don't Make Wisconsin and Libya About Obama

I hear a growing number of people on the left expressing anger at the Obama administration for refusing to indulge in amplified symbolic gestures of support for resistance movements in Wisconsin and Libya.

This makes me very nervous. It reminds me too much of those progressive voices whose megaphoning of disappointment with the first two years of the Obama administration (some more justified than others) played out primarily in Democratic low-enthusiasm rather than Democratic resolution and yielded primarily depressed voter turnout and crazytown Republican victories rather than resolved reformist pushes for more, and better, Democrats.

I cannot for the life of me see what the spectacle of an Obama declaration of Wisconsin's Walker an enemy of the people or of an Obama swinging-dick swagger about the unilateral imposition of no-fly zones over Libya could possibly do to provide actual material support for the righteous resisters in either of these urgent struggles. If the speeches were real barn burners, they might at best provide a momentary inspiration or comfort to the resisters, and drive a news cycle into a frenzy of briefly exhilarated lefties and hyperventilating wingnuts. But to what substantial benefit and at what substantial cost?

Given the ample evidence that the administration is indeed providing real and timely material support for the good guys via OFA in Wisconsin and the State Department and the UN in Libya, the calls for Obama to indulge in media spectacles "to show he cares" (beyond his explicit declarations to that effect already, of course) seem to me especially misplaced.

While I do not doubt that there is plenty to criticize in the administration's policies here and there in these crises -- that is always the case, obviously -- but I strongly disagree with anybody who wants to imply that the reluctance of the administration to throw tantrums in favor of resisters amounts of all things to stealthy declarations of administration support for Walker's union-busting or for Gaddafi crimes against his own people for pete's sake. Maybe nobody actually thinks such a palpably ridiculous thing in explicit terms, but it is hard for me to square some of the misdirected rage I am hearing at Obama's handling of these events with attributions to his "reticence" of attitudes more mild than such foolishness.

Were Obama to engage in the spectacular politics that growing numbers of left media figures are now demanding of him, I daresay his gestures would prove a lightning rod around which the reactionary thugs of the GOP and Libyan dictatorship would instantly and effectively mobilize in a manner that so far they have not been able to do. And should that happen Obama would surely -- and I think rightly -- be criticized as having commandeered resistance struggles of which he was not an integral part in the service of superficial and personal gains to the costs of the movements themselves.

Those on the left who are crying out for such actions seem to me at best to be demanding actions that are ill-considered (I'd propose that Ed Shultz may be one doing this), at worse in ways that are self-aggrandizing (I'd propose that Cenk Uygur may be one doing this).

Even if the Obama Administration could indeed do more, or do better (which is a safe bet even for the best administrations), the problem at hand in Wisconsin and in Libya is not that Obama Administration is not doing more or doing better. The focus in Wisconsin should remain forcefully on smug dead-eyed Scotty Walker and the shock-doctrinaire union-busting Movement Republicans and their corporate backers as well as on the dazzling grassgroots protests and the righteous Democratic Senatorial refuseniks. The focus in Libya should be the gangster Gaddafi and the ongoing mobilization of condemnations and sanctions arising out of global governance, which are fracturing and isolating the regime while protesters gain ever greater control over Libya.

Libya is not Egypt: Unlike the Youth Movement in Egypt the leaders of the resistance inside Libya were not organized and well-prepared by years of nonviolence training and democratic education, and the result is unspeakably horrific and profoundly uncertain (although, I remain desperately hopeful about its eventual prospects as a closed society reconnects with the creative resources of the Libyan diaspora). In no small part, Wisconsin is what happens when Democrats don't get out the vote, especially now that every layer of governance under the sway of Republicans -- including governors who used to have to have their feet on the ground at least some of the time and judges who used to be beholden to professional standards of reasonableness at least some of the time -- has been fatally radicalized by the extreme authoritarian nihilist Movement Republican wing of the GOP.

Let's just say, not to put too fine a point on it, that Twitter won't save Libya any more than a big Obama speech will save Wisconsin's unions. Politics isn't about media spectacles, substantial resistance isn't "viral," however much superficial punditocrats across the spectrum would like to think otherwise. Nor, I might add, is insurrection a "trend" for gossip-columnists to discuss like the latest fashion in handbags.

In my view the Obama administration hasn't done too badly through all of this in the main (usual qualifications and objections notwithstanding). That doesn't mean their politics are my politics. It means that I don't expect an American President and his Administration fully to reflect the politics of a secular democratic socialist feminist vegetarian queer aesthete, and judge administrations as better or worse, helpful or not, to my political ideals and desired eventual outcomes accordingly. This isn't a council of resignation in the name of pragmatism. To the extent that my ideals are more radical I know to look to education, agitation, and organization otherwise and elsewhere, and so should those who want Wisconsin to be a first step toward a revitalized labor movement and radical democratization of the United States or who want Libya to another step in a world-historical North African and Middle Eastern spring for democracy.

Don't make Wisconsin and Libya about Obama. It makes little sense, does no good, and risks doing real harm.

No comments: